The Lady and the Journey: Rediscovering the Virgin Mary

Cincinnati, where I live, is one of America’s picturesque inland river cities. For 200 years she has hugged the northern shore of the Ohio River at a point between the Great Miami and the Little Miami, where Ordovician hills form what geologists call the Cincinnati Arch. These hills are mother to civilization in the Ohio Valley. Even the city curls into their folds, and the hills in turn form their curves around the undulations of the river.

Neither life nor landscape in this valley is stark or sharp. By turns tender with newborn spring green, lush with mature summer fullness, tangy with autumn apple red-gold, or soft with winter monochrome, the river valley is more shadow than angle, more subtlety than showiness. People, too, grow settled and gentled. Once here they seem never to leave, more than a few tracing their Cincinnati ancestry to arrival in the days of ark, keelboat, and flatboat. Those early settlers clustered in the riverfront basin between the hills. Only when the invention of the incline railway gave them access to the bluffs did they move into the surrounding hillsides, perching their thin, vertical houses on Mount Adams or Mount Auburn or Price Hill.

A month ago the hills yet lay bare in the Lenten silence preceding their burst into Easter. Now it is early April in the river valley. The merest hint of green on the slopes gives promise that the Lord’s renewal of us comes ever by way of his infusion of new life into his creation. Here and there the early flowering trees are already blooming, tulip magnolia and weeping cherry. But the glory of Easter is not yet. The world still waits in breathless silence, for the Passion of Our Lord to begin.

On this Monday of Holy Week there has been a steady rain all day. Only the rhythmic flick of windshield wipers sending rivulets of rain toward the corners of the glass breaks the late afternoon stillness. Driving east on Columbia Parkway out of downtown, I look up through the drizzle at my favorite sight in Cincinnati. There, atop the hillside of Mount Adams, stands the plain little gray stone church of the Holy Cross-Immaculata. And there at the peak of the gable stands the glistening white Immaculata herself, Virgin of the Ohio, beckoning with outstretched hands. From her height she commands the best of all views of the city. She guards the steps that run steeply all the way from Saint Gregory Street to her church door — the steps that countless faithful since 1860 have climbed each Good Friday in the Pilgrimage of the Holy Cross. Plainly visible from downtown; from Covington, Kentucky, across the river; from the long stretch of parkway that follows the ridge line of the eastern hills, Our Lady guards the river. Appropriately she looks toward the end, toward something beyond her. Not for herself was she made but for her Son.

I do not know of another American city where the Virgin rules so prominently. The Immaculata belongs to Cincinnati. More than that, I like to think, she belongs to me. She has become for me the symbol of the end toward which my spiritual journey is unfolding. The slow movement of a life toward its goal, the awakening of a soul to its reason for being are coming about only with and through the Virgin. But to come even to that dim realization of Mary as the pivot round which turns any understanding of Christ has meant a long journey, a journey up the river. My own journey has required a passage upstream, backward toward the source. Though paddling upstream can be difficult, the journey for me has been simplified by a great fact: our source and end are one. Our beginning is also our homecoming. Our Alpha is our Omega. We come from God; we return to God. All the in-between is merely learning that we live in God’s life — if we care to, if we choose to. It is learning the path toward home.

On this rainy day a low sky weights down the river valley. The river itself is a gray swath pressing downstream, slithering between misted hills, finally bending out of sight. From its source at Pittsburgh until it surges into the Mississippi at Cairo, the Ohio drops a thousand miles. At Cincinnati it still has half its journey to go.

The river’s passage has always been for me symbolically locked into my own journey. Happy though we be in this life, our restless hearts, our growing, our changing and decaying, our recurrent dyings and risings clue us that while we live here our journey toward our home is never accomplished. Our life is itself our journey toward home. Going home is what we do, from beginning to end. A word breathed out, sent upon a mission we are, only to be recalled to our source.

My entire adult life — that is, the life that began when I was a young bride — has been spent on the banks of the Ohio River or at most three miles from it. As a newlywed coming to the historic little town of Newburgh, Indiana, I lived in an apartment converted from an antebellum tobacco warehouse, a great-walled fortress scarcely fifty feet from the riverbank. Then we moved to our first house, only four blocks from the river. Those were idyllic growing-up years when we founded a home, filled it with cheerful, chattering babies, and took the preliminary steps to do our part in building up the Kingdom. Those years stretched out so comfortingly that we were lulled into thinking our home really might be the permanent abode we hoped it symbolized.

Our uprooting, however, came in time. Yet we were lucky. Some families move many times; we moved only once. But once was enough for my rooted, homebound nature. It took me some years to awaken to see that our move was only up the river. Though we had journeyed 200 miles upstream, we had not left the river. We had merely traveled toward the source. Because upstream goes harder, we were tossing out some cargo. In our journey we were pruning away the excess, honing and simplifying.

Two hundred miles — not much in the scale of 25,000 miles of earth’s circumference. Distance, however, is one of the things we are allowed to think of as relative. For a Hoosier girl to whom happiness was nearly synonymous with home any move out of sight of family and friends was an exile of 25,000 miles. Slowly, though, the new symbols began to take shape. Here, as well as there, were reflections of a Creator, earthly forms through which divinity could explode.

Here, too, in Cincinnati I discovered my dearest symbol — the Virgin — who became for me the symbol of where we are going on our journey. Though she is not the beginning and end of our journey, she is the means by which we arrive at our home. She is our companion on the journey, guiding us, consoling us on our way. Without her could we make this journey at all?

What happened between the Son and the Mother is the center of salvation, Von Balthasar once said. God’s gracious revelation of himself can be likened to a river, he thought. “The river can never be distanced from its source,” which is God. If anyone wants to participate in this flowing river of revelation, then he “must plunge into this wellspring, into its inexhaustible mystery.” And the mystery is “that God’s Word has really opened itself to us, that it has really been received among us and has really dwelt among us, that it has not returned to God alone but together with us. We can see what this means from the relationship between this Child and this Mother. She totally puts herself at the Word’s disposition that it may become flesh from her flesh.”

Trying to fathom this dazzling mystery has only just begun for me; I proceed still like a child in my attempts to glimpse anything. Yet I realize that I will make my way only through the Virgin. Even to come to that realization has taken more than twenty years. Still, I have come along, if only to that first step, the first step, perhaps, of the pilgrimage up Mount Adams to the Immaculata, my Virgin of the Ohio. What I have come to believe in these two decades and how I have come to believe it is the story of my journey up the river to the Virgin, who will take me on to the source.

The content of my belief is briefly told; it is, I hope, a universal orthodox Catholic belief centered on the Trinity and Incarnation. How I came to believe it — as is the case with everyone — is unique to me, my own story of how the Lord penetrated the soul and matter of one particular woman.

Years ago I ran upon a truth that opened a chain of doors in my mind.

“I Am,” said Yahweh when he announced his name to Moses. “I Am who I Am. This is what you must say to the sons of Israel: I Am has sent me to you.” Who understands the mystery of this great grammatical equation in which subject and predicate are the same? Not one of us can fathom the mystery. What we partially can understand is that God is the beginning and the end, the origin and the fulfillment of being and existence. In him all things come together. In him all things live and move and have their being.

The most striking revelations in Scripture are those, I think, in which language, the very gift we have received that makes us able to understand anything of God, is expanded to its human limits and is carried even beyond us to a transcendent realm we cannot see. Such passages are the “I Am” passage, for example, in Exodus; and the greatest of the great, the prologue to John’s Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word: the Word was with God and the Word was God,” in which the Word, the second Person of the Trinity, is described as with God and identical with God from the beginning.

There are the passages in Matthew and Luke where Jesus asks Peter to tell him who Peter thinks Jesus is — “Who do you say I am?,” a question that specifies there is a definite “I Am” but which also asks for a free human affirmation of its existence. There are, further, the passages in John in which Jesus amplifies by way of metaphor what the “I Am” means — “I am the bread of life,” “I am the gate,” “I am the good shepherd,” “I am the light of the world,” “I am the resurrection,” I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” and the ultimate revelation of himself as synonymous with God, the God of the “I Am,” when he says, “I tell you most solemnly, before Abraham was, I Am.”

Since God is Word itself and reveals himself through words, what words we use when we describe God are not only merely important but are also sacred. God is not altogether unknown to us. Through the Third Person, the Holy Spirit, he reveals himself to our minds, and, consequently, if we exercise our responsibility to gain some knowledge of him, we will come better to know him. God does use our intellect. He wants us to love him, but we can only love someone we know. In order to love him, we must know something about him. Some formal knowledge, therefore, helps us to understand something of the interior life of God in the Trinity and his piercing the world of men in the Incarnation. Books are necessary to the Christian life, I think, as necessary as prayer. It is my experience that without some reading, especially Scripture, prayer dries up.

Our intellects are tied to earth, however, and the Lord works accordingly. Most of our thinking reflects not upon books but upon our experiences. When we draw our experiences into our reading and then into our prayer, they become transformed, lifted into the transcendent.

My own experience all flows from three primary events. First, I was born. Our being born into a particular family begins to explain to us how freely God bestows his gifts. Everything is gift, everything undeserved. In my case I was richly blessed with parents who beneficially have influenced me all my life; with grandparents who enriched our lives; with a brother who, together with his wife and children, is an ever greater gift to me. I am much blessed that nothing in my family would lead me to doubt that God’s creation is good.

Second, I married a good and wise man. For a woman even more than for a man, perhaps, marriage brings metaphysics into the heart of a family. The questions we ask, what kind of God is God, what is the relationship of God to us, what is Mary’s part in creation, all begin to be answered in our meditations upon the experience of a marriage. Aristotle’s question — how could man be a friend to a divinity, a God who is completely above him — evaporates in the context of Christian marriage, which is meant to be a mirror of Christ’s relationship to his church. Not only can God be a friend to man but, astonishingly, he loves mankind as intimately and tenderly as a bridegroom loves his bride. The relationship of God to his creation is none other than the relationship humans cherish the most: a spousal relationship. How does God love us? As tenderly, as absolutely, as faithfully as husband and wife love each other does God love us, loving us, even as husband and wife love, by giving us his body, by dying on the cross, and then by giving to us his body in the Eucharist. Just as a bride is married to her husband, we also are married to Christ. As baptized members of the church we are the Bride of Christ, joined, as a bride to her husband, to his body. As I have grown in understanding of marriage as a reflection of the spousal nature of creation, of marriage as built into the design of the cosmos and therefore utterly unbreakable, I also have grown in an understanding of God and a love of the church. I can imagine myself, standing, as we all do, with Mary at the foot of the cross, as she is named by her Son as the Woman, the second Eve, to represent all of us in his church.

The third event of my life, upon which my spiritual journey has turned, is being a mother. It has been my own marriage, culminating in motherhood, that has given me a glimmer of how essential Mary is to the Incarnation. Without Mary’s fiat the Incarnation would not have occurred. Without Mary’s fiat we would not know that the inner life of God is the First Person knowing and loving the Second Person, flowering in the fruit of their love, the Holy Spirit. Without Mary’s fiat saying yes to the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit, we would not really know what the face of God looks like. But in perfect freedom and obedience Mary said quietly, “Let it be done to me according to thy word.” At the end of that wedding liturgy, during which the Angel Gabriel and Mary spoke solemnly back and forth, the Holy Spirit had taken Mary as his bride and her ovum had been joined to the Holy Spirit in an incredible demonstration of how God loves mankind. The wedding of Mary to the Holy Spirit is the example to end all examples of the spousal union God has with his creation. So much does God love his created world that he married us. And, further, he took Mary as his freely accepting bride, joined his spirit to her human nature, and became a flesh and blood baby in her womb.

It is a mind-breaking mystery, the Incarnation. But a woman, I think, is so directly related to Mary that she can begin to imagine what Mary would have thought and wondered about as she said yes and then conceived and bore the Lord in her womb. Women can immediately and intuitively understand the receptive nature of Mary. Those millions of us who have borne and nursed babies may know immediately how strong is the receptive nature of woman. If an ordinary woman can receive the gift of her husband and be home to him and home to the baby they have conceived together, then it is not hard to imagine that Mary could receive the Holy Spirit and be home to the Lord Jesus. If an ordinary woman can sustain life in her baby by giving him her milk, if she can cuddle him and wonder at him as she pours forth her milk for him, then how much more must Mary have given herself to her baby son; how much more must she have poured out herself for him, who came to her so amazingly and completely dependent upon her.

The receptive nature of a woman is at the heart of her reality. A woman is blessed in that her nature has the possibility of being in tune with the heart of the world God has made. Because a man is less directly tied to the origins of life, he may have a more difficult time settling into his proper place in the cosmos. A woman, however, lives by her womb and her milk. The most intellectual woman in the world, if she lets herself live according to the nature she is given, views the world in reference to her womb and her milk. To receive and conceive, to bear new life, to nurture new life is one continuous action. Receiving, bearing, pouring out is the essence of a woman’s life. It is the essence, too, of God’s action in her. God always asks of a woman, just as he asked of Mary, that she receive the life of grace, that she bear it in her, and that she pour it forth as milk for her loved ones and for the world.

A womb in which to bear a baby, milk for nursing him — such concrete gifts God gives a woman. Mary, too, had these gifts. It is just these fleshly gifts — material gifts — that allow God to shatter the world of matter. Womb, milk allow the divine to wed the flesh. So long as Mary bears God in her womb and nurses him with her milk there can be neither Gnostic nor Manichaean nor Arian heresy. Mary is the safeguard of who God is. As long as she retains her place of honor as the Bride of the Holy Spirit, Mother of God, Christ will be seen in his full glory for who he is — the I Am.

What I have outlined as the core of my belief and as the three elements which have led me to believe it has been a long time coming even to this point. People I love have been most instrumental in helping me to move along. My parents, to begin with, from whom I still receive so many gifts. My husband, who has shown me what God’s friendship means. Our love and friendship in our marriage, I have always thought, form the source for all our friendships that blossom from that main stem. Our children, our gifts and delights, who teach us what wonder is and who teach us that the highest things of life are not things at all but persons. My in-laws, who have been as close to me as blood relatives. A line of steadfast friends, both lay and religious, both in Cincinnati and flung across the country, who have told me much about their own spiritual journeys — and especially those dear friends who have introduced me to their own devotion to Our Lady.

There is a powerful providential thread, I think, that binds us to the people we meet in our lives. Without negating our freedom, we can recognize that the people who come into our lives come for a reason. Thus I think Flannery O’Connor did not exaggerate the importance of these providential meetings when, according to her biographer, she prayed every day to the Archangel Raphael to guide her to meet the people she was supposed to meet in her life.

I could not sketch my journey up the river without including the influence of the Jesuits. The Society of Jesus may seem a surprising influence in the life of a laywoman. Yet the influence is there, and it took root as early as my undergraduate days, when I was still a Protestant. After my conversion to Catholicism my contacts with the Society widened over two decades, always enhanced by the strong impact the Society has had on both a Jesuit-educated husband and son. One of God’s strange ironies, it seems to me, is that although this is the very moment in history when the Society is struggling to preserve its identity against the loss of intellectual integrity on the part of so many of its members, it is also the very moment when individual Jesuits profoundly have reinforced and helped to define my own faith. Short Jesuits, tall Jesuits, old-timers and novices, bearded and clean-shaven, oratorical and tongue-tied, pompous and humble, aggravating and endearing, ascetic and charismatic, I have observed quite a few at close range, as pastors, counselors, teachers, writers, administrators, spiritual directors, confessors and friends.

Of the numerous Jesuit priests I have met, three have figured most prominently. First, an affable, plain-spoken Jesuit of my own age, whose simple, manly faith was an inspiration as he directed me through the Spiritual Exercises. Second, a scholarly, sixtyish Jesuit of unwavering orthodox faith, whose steady, continuing conversation and friendship over considerable years has been indispensable to my intellectual and spiritual formation. And finally, a contemplative, octogenarian Jesuit, whose friendship has been discovered more recently but whose serene wisdom impresses me that he has achieved a high degree of Ignatian detachment — that state of subordinating everything in life to a desire for God, of living, finally, ad majorem dei gloriam. All three of these men, though all of different personalities and charisms, are, as in the title of Chesterton’s poem, “Sons of Ignatius, Formed by His Exercises.” As sons of Ignatius they, like Ignatius himself who hung up his sword before the statue of Our Lady and made himself one with her fiat, receive the gift of their faith from the background of the Annunciation and the Trinity. A true Jesuit formed by the Exercises is also formed by Mary’s fiat.

A number of years ago my husband and I received a bit of Jesuit formation: we made the Spiritual Exercises. That experience changed our lives. The Exercises did not turn us in a new direction; that was not necessary. What the Exercises effected in us was concentration, focus, purpose. From the opening words of the First Principle and Foundation, “Man is created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save his soul,” I fell into the Exercises as a thirsty pilgrim. Day after day over three months my journal swelled with my reflections. Somehow I received grace to sit transfixed for whole mornings, living in the meditations and colloquies. For the first time in my life I met — really encountered — the Son and his Mother. Though I had been fascinated for many years by Henry Adams’ recognition of Mary as the embodiment of the feminine principle in history, by his realization that the power of Mary came from nothing other than her powerlessness, I had never entered the mystery of the Mother and her Son. I had not yet come to the prayer of the rosary. But the Spiritual Exercises punctured for me the shell of resistance I had built up against Mary. How could I have stood up against the meditations on the Annunciation, the Visitation, the Nativity? What was Mary but an empty vessel to be filled, just as I was?

I also came to know and love the glorious concluding prayer of the Exercises, the Suscipe prayer of Ignatius. Although there are more ornate translations, this is the one I pray: “Take, O Lord, all my liberty. Take in their entirety my memory, my understanding and my will, all I have and possess. Everything I have comes from you, Lord, and everything I have I give back to you, to be used entirely according to your purpose. Give me only your love and your grace, and I will have everything I need.” Those are transforming words, I have found. To offer one’s memory, understanding and will — all the parts of one’s being — or to attempt so to do, is to alter the thrust of a life. To offer one’s liberty is to move toward the only real liberty there is — the freedom that lies in doing God’s will. It has been my experience that the Ignatian prayer noticeably has affected especially my memory. To exercise the essential human task of looking backward into memory is to search out the silent recesses where memory has tucked away its record of how God has touched us and how we sometimes have squeezed his hand in return or at other times have pulled our hand out of his grasp. There is a quiet that is crucial for this work of the memory. Without quiet the memory never can look backward into the silent revelation of our life. Without the quiet necessary to recall how the Word has spoken in our life we can store nothing to prepare us to hear the Word in the future. Without quiet nothing happens to either the human heart or the human brain. Noise, chaos precludes hearing the Word.

When I look back upon my life, there is a word to characterize it that drifts upward to the surface of my mind. That very word is quiet. I, like so many women everywhere, have been given throughout my adult life the gift of quiet, and I have come to regard it as a choice blessing. I do not mean that our household has not known all the chatter and clamor of any ordinary family. We have had that and still do. When I reflect, though, on the days I have spent at home — most days in my life — there have been few sounds exterior to life in the household. The sounds of my life have been the usual sounds of a family living, working, playing. Now that everyone but me is away during the morning and afternoon, the interior of my life is even quieter. Beyond the particular sounds of the tools of the household, the washer spinning or the dishwasher slushing, beyond the clocks ticking in the hall and on the mantelpiece, nothing much breaks an afternoon stillness.

The quietness of a life can be an opportunity. It can be a preparation for going deeper; it can be a chance for reflection; it can be even a call to contemplation. I am grateful for these quiet years. I rejoice over the long, precious hours of nursing my babies, when I could read Anna Karenina or The Brothers Karamazov or simply gaze at the baby. I rejoice over the silent musings at the kitchen sink or the ironing board. The quietness has never been dull; on the contrary I believe it has been fruitful. Mary’s life must have been quiet. Never leaving her home for a cloister, never going out of the world but remaining at the heart of the world in her home with Joseph and her Son Jesus, she lived her quiet, hidden life of contemplation, for thirty years helping her Son prepare for his mission to fulfill the Father’s plan. Those thirty years when Jesus lived the hidden life of the home in Nazareth seem uncommonly long. Yet surely they were the quiet contemplative years that had to precede his action in the world, the advent time necessary to prepare him for the three public years of his ministry and final sacrifice.

The quiet of my own modest life has become increasingly, by some grace, engrafted in the Suscipe prayer. Now, too, by some grace, I at last have learned, awkwardly, to pray the rosary. Maisie Ward thought the rosary often was the last thing a convert learned to love. She counted on the fascination of the rosary, nonetheless, which she described as “a very intellectual, very civilized, form of prayer.” There is a further benefit to the rosary. Praying with the fingers as well as with the mind is a solid activity, it seems to me, perfect for us humans who are both body and spirit. The rosary seems an exact fit for incarnate beings.

The spiritual life begins in the mind. It begins with specific knowledge of God acquired by some intellectual effort to grasp the truth of doctrine. From there, however, the spiritual life percolates into every facet of our being. From an intellectual assent to revelation faith moves to what my octogenarian Jesuit calls falling in love with the Lord. One of the most intellectual of all saints, Thomas More, said to his daughter Meg (in Robert Bolt’s play), “Finally, it isn’t a matter of reason; finally, it’s a matter of love.” A long time ago I puzzled over what that line meant — a matter of love. Now I know. Finally, because first I fell in love with his Mother, I have fallen in love with the Son.

In our living room hangs a small oil painting, dated 1910, by the Cincinnati impressionist John Rettig. The scene shows a Mount Adams hillside dotted with several simple frame houses. The trees in the foreground are bare; it is not yet Easter. Far away at the upper left is a suggestion of the Ohio River. A silver-pink glow in the West backlights the painting. At the top of the picture in the very middle, framed between bare branches, silhouetted against the sunset glow, is the steeple of the Church of the Immaculata. This is a small painting, and so my Virgin of the Ohio atop the gable is nowhere to be seen. All the same, I know she is there, guarding her river, beckoning pilgrims toward home.


Mrs. Anne Husted Burleigh is a free-lance writer, mother, and grandmother who lives on a farm overlooking the Ohio River in Rabbit Hash, Kentucky, near Cincinnati. She has written two books: John Adams, a Biography, and Journey up the River: a Midwesterner’s Spiritual Pilgrimage. She has contributed to many publications, including Crisis and Catholic Dossier, and now writes for Magnificat.

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